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Cap-and-trade puttering along quite nicely in the Northeast U.S.

Last week, I argued that people shouldn't be so gloomy about carbon-trading systems, despite the hue and cry around the European Union's Emissions Trading System (ETS) right now. One example of a carbon-trading system that seems to be doing just fine is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which currently involves nine states in the U.S. Northeast.

RGGI is pretty modest as these things go. It only covers power plants, and only those 25 megawatts or greater. (There are 211 covered plants at the moment.) Its first three-year trading period ended at the end of 2011.

Thus far, it seems to be working as planned -- better than planned, actually. Over the 2008-11 period, CO2 emissions from covered plants were down 23 percent compared to the three years prior. That's 126 million short tons of emissions eliminated.

In fact, over 2008-11, RGGI power plants came in 33 percent under the cap set by the program. (In 2012, they came in at 45 percent below the cap.)

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Think methane hydrates are the next big thing? Think again.

Methane hydrate burning in a laboratory
USGS Gas Hydrates Lab
Methane hydrate burning in a laboratory.

The right way to understand the potential of unconventional fuels like methane hydrates and tight oil is to closely examine their production rates and their prices. If these fuels can be produced at large scales and profitable prices, they very well might influence geopolitics and economics in the ways that Charles C. Mann speculates. If they cannot, then it truly doesn't matter how much of those resources may exist underground and in the ocean floor.

Unfortunately Mann offers precious little data on price or production rates.

If Mann's data on methane hydrates is correct, then Japan's experiment so far has taken 10 years and $700 million to produce 4 million cubic feet of gas, which is worth about $16,000 at today's U.S. gas prices, or about $50,000 at today's prices for imported LNG in Japan. At this point, it is an enormously expensive experimental pilot project, and nothing more. We do not yet know when it might be able to recover commercial volumes of gas, or at what rate, or at what price. We have no reason to believe that if commercial quantities are recoverable by 2018 as Japan hopes -- which seems incredibly optimistic -- that the price of that gas will be competitive with imported LNG.

At the same time, we have numerous forecasts projecting that renewables like wind and solar will be competitive with fossil-fueled grid power in most of the developed world by 2020, including much of Asia. For example, a recent report by Citigroup, and another by researchers at Stanford University, among many others. A 2011 report by WWF and Ecofys projects that by 2018, solar PV will be the cheapest way to generate power in much of Asia. If these forecasts -- based on more than a decade of real-world cost data for large-scale solar and wind -- are correct, then there is no reason to believe that gas from Japan's methane hydrate experiment will be able to compete with renewable grid power, which would constitute the largest market for that gas (unless Japan rapidly deploys natural gas vehicles in the interim, which it currently has no economic reason to do).

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Flower power: Fighting the Man with guerrilla gardens

seed bomb
Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

I’ve never thought of myself as much of a rebel. You generally won’t find me smashing car windows or setting garbage cans aflame. (Let’s get real: You probably won’t find me speeding. Such are the depths of my rule-following nature.) But I realize now that all along, I’ve just been waiting for the right weapon with which to battle The Man.

Wildflowers, of course. More precisely: ping-pong ball-size globs of clay and compost laced with wildflower seeds called seed bombs (or green grenades -- military nomenclature is a must). The other day, I stood in front of a fenced-off lot on a busy stretch of asphalt, fingering the tiny seed arsenal I’d packed into a Ziploc bag. I looked back and forth, took a deep breath, and let one fly over the chain links; the ball came to rest on a scrubby patch of dirt in the sun. “Take that!” I muttered under my breath.

Finally, I was beginning to understand the rebel thrill. This must be what Marlon Brando felt like.

Read more: Cities, Living

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What if we never run out of oil?

A fracking well in Lawrence County, Pa.
WCN 24/7
A fracking well in Lawrence County, Pa.

As the great research ship Chikyu left Shimizu in January to mine the explosive ice beneath the Philippine Sea, chances are good that not one of the scientists aboard realized they might be closing the door on Winston Churchill’s world. Their lack of knowledge is unsurprising; beyond the ranks of petroleum-industry historians, Churchill’s outsize role in the history of energy is insufficiently appreciated.

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. With characteristic vigor and verve, he set about modernizing the Royal Navy, jewel of the empire. The revamped fleet, he proclaimed, should be fueled with oil, rather than coal -- a decision that continues to reverberate in the present. Burning a pound of fuel oil produces about twice as much energy as burning a pound of coal. Because of this greater energy density, oil could push ships faster and farther than coal could.

Churchill’s proposal led to emphatic dispute. The United Kingdom had lots of coal but next to no oil. At the time, the United States produced almost two-thirds of the world’s petroleum; Russia produced another fifth. Both were allies of Great Britain. Nonetheless, Whitehall was uneasy about the prospect of the Navy’s falling under the thumb of foreign entities, even if friendly. The solution, Churchill told Parliament in 1913, was for Britons to become “the owners, or at any rate, the controllers at the source of at least a proportion of the supply of natural oil which we require.” Spurred by the Admiralty, the U.K. soon bought 51 percent of what is now British Petroleum, which had rights to oil “at the source”: Iran (then known as Persia). The concessions' terms were so unpopular in Iran that they helped spark a revolution. London worked to suppress it. Then, to prevent further disruptions, Britain enmeshed itself ever more deeply in the Middle East, working to install new shahs in Iran and carve Iraq out of the collapsing Ottoman Empire.

Churchill fired the starting gun, but all of the Western powers joined the race to control Middle Eastern oil. Britain clawed past France, Germany, and the Netherlands, only to be overtaken by the United States, which secured oil concessions in Turkey, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The struggle created a long-lasting intercontinental snarl of need and resentment. Even as oil-consuming nations intervened in the affairs of oil-producing nations, they seethed at their powerlessness; oil producers exacted huge sums from oil consumers but chafed at having to submit to them. Decades of turmoil -- oil shocks in 1973 and 1979, failed programs for “energy independence,” two wars in Iraq -- have left unchanged this fundamental, Churchillian dynamic, a toxic mash of anger and dependence that often seems as basic to global relations as the rotation of the sun.

All of this was called into question by the voyage of the Chikyu (“Earth”), a $540 million Japanese deep-sea drilling vessel that looks like a billionaire’s yacht with a 30-story oil derrick screwed into its back. The Chikyu, a floating barrage of superlatives, is the biggest, glitziest, most sophisticated research vessel ever constructed, and surely the only one with a landing pad for a 30-person helicopter. The central derrick houses an enormous floating drill with a six-mile “string” that has let the Chikyu delve deeper beneath the ocean floor than any other ship.

The Chikyu, which first set out in 2005, was initially intended to probe earthquake-generating zones in the planet’s mantle, a subject of obvious interest to seismically unstable Japan. Its present undertaking was, if possible, of even greater importance: trying to develop an energy source that could free not just Japan but much of the world from the dependence on Middle Eastern oil that has bedeviled politicians since Churchill’s day.

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Mitt Romney tells college grads to have lots of babies

Mitt Romney's got a solution to Republicans' demographic woes. It's not to embrace immigration reform, or stop putting misogynistic nut jobs on the ballot, or pursue economic policies that would benefit groups other than rich, old, white people.

Romney family portrait
Mitt knows whereof he speaks.

No, Mitt Romney's big idea is that conservatives need to have more kids.

During a commencement address he gave this past weekend at Southern Virginia University, a predominately Mormon college, Romney urged new grads to get married young and start poppin' 'em out.

Read more: Politics

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Bike Party — a fresh new way to take back the streets

bike prom 2
O'Doherty Photography

As with all great parties, I heard Friday night’s bike fiesta before I found it. Pedaling my old-school aluminum Trek road bike up one of Baltimore’s main drags -- in a black bow tie, ruffled shirt, and cummerbund, naturally -- I suddenly caught Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” blasting from a nearby park. And then, up the hill a little further, I saw the 20-, 30-, and, yes, 40-something couples in retro tuxes, chiffon and satin gowns, with flowers in their lapels and corsages on their wrists, posing for pictures next to decorated bicycles.

There were even women with tiaras atop their helmets. One friend managed to dangle a sparkling disco ball off the front of her handlebars -- lit by her bicycle light once we started riding and the sun went down. Close to 1,000 people in all. Not everyone, but most, dressed to the nines for that once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

Welcome to Bike Party: Bike Prom edition, part of a burgeoning movement nationwide that is putting the fun into bicycling activism.

Last April, the traditional, anarchy-inspired Critical Mass rides here evolved (how long can something be both traditional and anarchist?) into the newer, safer, more traffic-friendly -- and happier -- last-Friday-of-every-month Baltimore Bike Party. Critical Mass rides, for the unfamiliar, date back two decades and have taken place in cities all over the world. They are historically political, punk, and confrontational in manner.

Bike Party, by contrast, is gentle, '60s-style protest/celebration. It’s theater, activism, bicycling, and social gathering all at once. Or, as I overheard one woman tell a girlfriend on a ride: “It’s like everything I love rolled into one ... and it’s going out on Friday night to a great party.”

Read more: Cities

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What would ‘wartime mobilization’ to fight climate change look like?

"What, this Death Star? It's for climate change."
Deadliestfiction
"What, this Death Star? It's for climate change."

The United States and 140 other countries have signed or otherwise associated with the Copenhagen Accord, in which it is agreed that the nations of the world should "hold the increase in global temperature below 2°C, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity." For there to be a chance -- even just a 50/50 chance -- of limiting temperature rise to 2°C, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 (earlier for the developed world) and fall by 9 or 10 percent a year every year thereafter.

Nothing like that has ever been done. Not even close. No major energy transition has ever moved that quickly. Carbon emissions have never fallen that fast, not even during the economic collapse brought on by the demise of the USSR. Getting to change of that scale and speed is not a matter of nudging along a natural economic shift, as clean energy cost curves come down and fossil fuels get more expensive. That scale and speed seem to demand something like wartime mobilization.

That metaphor gets used a lot. I've used it many times myself. But is it apt? And what would it mean to take it seriously? There's been lots of academic attention to the technology side of rapid, large-scale mitigation, but little attention to the governance side. How could a country engineer such a transition? What powers and institutions would be necessary?

An interesting pair of papers from Laurence L. Delina and his colleague Mark Diesendorf at the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales helps to frame the discussion. "Is wartime mobilisation a suitable policy model for rapid national climate mitigation?" will be published in Energy Policy, and "Governing Rapid Climate Mitigation" [PDF] was delivered at the Earth System Governance Conference this year in Tokyo.

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Local food — put a sticker on it!

apple-buy-local-crop-art

The Windy City is about to roll out a new local food label designed to support the city’s burgeoning urban farming movement. "Chicago Grown" will soon appear on signs around the city and on stickers on fruit, veggies, herbs, and honey, and eventually on processed items in which they’re included, such as salsa, jams, and even kombucha.

Backers believe Chicago Grown will be the first label issued by a major city specifically to promote its urban ag culture. "We really want the label to both increase demand for foods grown through urban agriculture and celebrate that so many people are growing food within Chicago," says Megan Klein with the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council (CFPAC), who is spearheading the effort with input from growers around the city. "We want people to be able to identify who is growing the food around them and to let them know where they can get it."

Chicago Grown and efforts like it are a natural next step for the “buy local” campaigns started in the ’90s. The early movement helped usher in the era of farmers markets, launch community supported agriculture operations (CSAs), and convince the nation’s gonzo chain grocery stores to stock their shelves with “local” products -- but the definition of “local” varies. Now, a flurry of branding and rebranding efforts around the country is giving the eating public an easy way to tell exactly where its food comes from and who grew it.

These local branding efforts are “reweaving a community tapestry undone by industrial America,” says Phil Korman, executive director of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture (CISA), which in 1999 founded the groundbreaking “Local Hero” marketing campaign, with the trademarked “Be A Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown” label. “We are giving back respect to farmers and changing the culture of where we are as people.”

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The medium chill, revisited

hammock feet
Shutterstock

A little less than two years ago, I wrote a post called "the medium chill," about efforts by my wife and me to step off the "aspirational treadmill" and accept some material constraints in exchange for lives with more free time, relationships, and experiences. It has gone on to be my most popular post ever. I don't know if it got the most hits, but it has solicited the most feedback, by a wide measure. It is one of very few posts I've ever written that is regularly mentioned to me by Normal People, i.e., people outside my online circles of green wonks and political obsessives. Several people have told me it gave them a way to express something they'd already been thinking, which is pretty much the nicest thing you can say to a writer.

Happiness small
Susie Cagle

Anyway, in some modest way, it resonated. Since Grist's theme this past month has been "happiness," my editor asked me to revisit the essay and talk a little about how my thinking has (or hasn't) changed. So here goes. Pardon me if this is a little discursive and rambly -- and by a little I mean a lot.

If I had to sum up, I'd say that I'm more skeptical/cautious about one part of my post and more committed than ever to the rest of it.

First, the part I'm more skeptical about. In my post, I cited research showing that above a certain level of income, money brings no further happiness. This is known as the Easterlin paradox, based on the work of USC professor Richard Easterlin. Those who want government to focus on quality of life rather than GDP (like me!) are very, very fond of citing this research, to the point that it's become a bit of a cliche, something "everyone knows."

The problem is that Easterlin got it wrong -- or at least, it sure looks like he got it wrong. I was going to round up some of the new research on this, but Dylan Matthews already did it for me. He sums up:

Read more: Living

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Fracking boom in North Dakota is here to stay

Excess gas flares off at a well site outside Williston.
James West/Climate Desk
Excess gas flares off at a well site outside Williston.

At 7:00 a.m. local time this morning, Lonnie’s Roadhouse Cafe in Williston, N.D., was already bustling, packed to the gills with truckers and roughnecks tanking up on coffee and omelets for another day in that town’s ongoing fracking boom.

“It’s continuous, it doesn’t stop,” says manager Lonnie Iverson. “Busy, busy, busy.”

It’s become a typical scene here in the last several years, as new drilling technology has unleashed massive deposits of oil from the Bakken Shale, in the process slashing unemployment to the lowest anywhere in the nation, minting a new class of oil wealth, and generally upending what was once a backwater prairie town -- turmoil Climate Desk witnessed firsthand last year (see video below). And it looks like that growth is here for the long haul: A new analysis out yesterday from the U.S. Geological Survey doubled previous estimates of how much oil is in reserve under North Dakota, up to 7.4 billion barrels, which would make it the largest oil field in the country.

“It’s good,” Lonnie says. “It’ll keep our people working.” And eating, presumably.

The new numbers come as no surprise to the fossil fuel titans behind the boom: Back in 2011, fracking kingpin Harold Hamm said he thought the Bakken will ultimately churn out 24 billion barrels. While the new federal analysis doesn’t go quite that far, it does confirm that places like Lonnie’s are likely to be jam-packed for the foreseeable future.